13 February 2008

Hillerman Imitator

Here's another import from ReadingOnTheWeb. It's from an entry I made in November 2002. I'm adding it because I just read the newest mystery by Margaret Coel and I'll be writing about it shortly. That and the other reactions to Coel's books I've written here gives a lie to my 2002 resolution not to read any more of her books.

Here's what I wrote in 2002:
While browsing in The Book Peddler in West Yellowstone, MT, I ran across a book that looked interesting: The Eagle Catcher by Margaret Coel.

If Tony Hillerman made a career of writing mysteries located on New Mexico's Navajo reservation, Margaret Coel seems to be making her career writing mysteries set on Wyoming's Wind River reservation. (In an interview she said that Hillerman was her inspiration.)

Coel was a reporter who wrote about Wyoming and Native history before turning to fiction. Her stories have been published in several magazines dedicated to mystery writing, but she's also been a "Career Achievement Nominee" in the Romantic Times Book Club.

Instead of centering her stories on a couple of Navajo policemen as Hillerman does, Coel's primary actors are a Jesuit missionary priest and an Arapaho woman lawyer who is conflicted about working for her people on the reservation or working on "big" issues in a large firm in Denver or Los Angeles.

The Eagle Catcher, published in 1995, was her first mystery novel. It's sold well, I guess. My copy was the 10th printing and there are four more Margaret Coel books advertised in the back.

Coel is a pretty good storyteller and offers some attractive characters who, like Jance's Sheriff Brady, have more going on in their lives than finding killers.

In the end, though, the people in her stories are unconvincing. A priest at a poor rural mission ought to be spending more time fund raising and less interfering with police work. And the hot shot lawyer whose legal brief is going to convince the Federal Appeals Court to set a precedent important to tribes all over the country really doesn't have time to pursue murder investigations in her spare time. The implausibility of "Murder She Wrote" rears its ugly head.

Coel does her best to make the dry grasslands of the Wind River reservation attractive, but she can't compete with Hillerman's rhapsodizing about the beauties of New Mexico's deserts. (Or perhaps I've had enough experience driving across the dry prairies of Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Montana not to romanticize them they way I can sometimes imagine the high desert.)

I finished reading The Eagle Catcher while sitting alongside the Firehole River on a gorgeous September afternoon in Yellowstone National Park. I liked it right up to the end despite its shortcomings. When the bad guy (a politician) gets zapped by Mother Nature's lightning instead of meeting secular justice, I'm disappointed. (If things worked that way, there would be few politicians left inside the beltway.) I couldn't have been that disappointed. On my way back through West Yellowstone, I bought two more Margaret Coel mysteries.

The additional books were The Spirit Woman and The Thunder Keeper. If The Eagle Catcher suggested that Coel's characters were not quite believable (in comparison to Jance's or Hillerman's); these books convinced me that Coel needs to work on plotting.

The stories are well told, but the stories left me really disappointed. I'm reminded of Dan Conrad's initial enthusiasm for Paula Cohen's Gramercy Park that cooled on further reading. Margaret Coel's stories are better read without thinking about them too much.

In these second and third books I read, the incredibility factor kept rising. Coel kept taking the shortcut of having her characters do things for very questionable reasons in order to move the story along. By the end of the third book, I wasn't sure I liked either of her main characters very much. I'm glad I read them, but I don't think I'll read any more of Coel's books. I'll send these off to Jana Eaton, who grew up in central Wyoming. If she has time while writing her thesis and teaching school, maybe she can escape to them. Then she can tell us what she thinks.

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